After growing up in Nigeria and having lived in New York City, Nazir Hausawa, who raps and performs as “Ziriums,” is happy to have finally found himself in Gainesville. Photos by Farhan Alam.

How Nazir Ahmed Hausawa rapped his way from Nigeria to Gainesville

(Scroll down to listen to one of his songs as you read!)

In the Sharia-influenced Kano State of Nigeria, the status quo is determined by the conservative Muslims in power and enforced by heavily armed soldiers. Nazir Ahmed Hausawa grew up in this environment. He believes it creates two types of people: those who follow and those who reason.

By devoting himself to politically progressive hip-hop, Hausawa proved he is of those who reason.

Hausawa was born in 1980 in Kano State, he and spent his childhood both in the city attending government schooling and in his grandmother’s village working with animals and agriculture. He continued to advance in school and ended on a track to becoming a teacher in biogeography.

However, his background wasn’t all academic. His father was an Islamic gospel musician, and Hausawa had been interested in music since childhood. His father’s music was a capella, because many Muslims felt that music was inherently un-Islamic, especially music that used instruments and contained outside influences. Hausawa disagreed and felt he could reconcile traditional Muslim values with new and foreign sounds.

“The Islamic religion is a religion of freedom,” Hausawa said. “If you have good music with good content, how can it be un-Islamic?”

He began listening to pop, blues and other Western music. His first introduction to hip-hop was with the late 80s group NWA, and he started listening to as much of the genre as he could. He formed a band with his friends, called the Northern Soldiers, and performed a cover of a Boyz II Men song. The lyrics had been rewritten to praise the prophet Muhammad.

“It got booed,” he said.

Hausawa just shrugged it off and kept creating. With the Northern Soldiers, he started out as a singer. However, one of his friends in the group rapped, and Hausawa found he identified more with this form of expression. He started learning from his friend and developing his own style of songwriting.

His method consisted of taking the beats of gangsta rap, and the flow of artists like Eminem, and combining that with Arabic methods of songwriting and satirical lyrics in his native Hausa language.

“The songwriting is a fusion of eastern and western types of writing,” Hausawa said.

During this time, Hausawa had been working at local television and radio stations. He worked as a sound engineer and familiarized himself with the technical aspect of music production. This is when he began devoting himself to rap. He created both love songs and politically charged anthems, and each new work stirred up more and more excitement from those around him. His music was unlike anything people had heard before.

“I’d create a verse and convert it into tongue twisting and rap it very fast,” Hausawa said. “Everyone was like, ‘Wow, what is this?’ [Then] I knew I had my style.”

Despite the awe, Hausawa and other rappers were barred by Sharia law from performing, and his songs couldn’t be heard on local stations in Nigeria. Only the musicians who could afford to pay a heavy censorship fee and bribe local DJs had a chance to get their music broadcasted.

Even after Hausawa was able to attract a fanbase, he still faced opposition from the government and the generation of Nigerians who felt that any hint of Western influence would bring moral degradation.

“We faced people who felt like they were guardians of Hausa culture,” Hausawa said. “They fight us like we are the enemies, as if we are not their own children, we are not Hausas, we are not Muslims.”

Hausawa saw close friends put in prison for simple acts of self expression, and he worried things wouldn’t get better. In one of his songs, “Girgiza Kai” — which translates to “Shake Your Head” — he raps about the problems that come with regulating someone’s moral standing and personal religious views.

“They treat us like we are not human beings,” Hausawa said. “That is why I’m doing what I am doing, to make a point that religion should be between you and your God.”

Unfortunately, the message of the song was lost on the conservative leaders trying to weed out dissenting views — the song was banned. Hausawa was becoming fed up with the stifling environment. When he got the opportunity to perform in New York, he took it.

His first American show was at the college SUNY Purchase. Despite the language barrier, the crowd reacted with overwhelming enthusiasm.

“The place was packed, and no one there spoke Hausa except for two people,” Hausawa said. “The students swarmed on the stage, dancing with me. It was the best thing I had ever experienced in my entire life as a performer.”

Hausawa stayed in New York, performing around the city and garnering recognition for the ideas he was spreading. Around this time, Susan O’brien, an associate professor of history at the University of Florida, invited him to come to Gainesville for a conference on hip-hop in Africa. O’brien had previously worked with Hausawa on a documentary called Recording a Revolution, which profiled him and other Nigerian rappers.

Hausawa accepted the invitation and, in turn, fell in love with Gainesville. He found the environment even more welcoming than New York.

“I loved New York, don’t get me wrong,” Hausawa said. “But I came to Gainesville, and it was so beautiful and small and chill … That took me back home.”

During his stay here, Hausawa joined the rap group Bang Bang Suckas and performed shows regularly around town. No matter how many times he’d step on stage, he was still nervous about his audience’s reception. He decided to keep rapping in his native language to show the people of Nigeria it is possible to explore new cultural forms without conforming; however, this meant giving American audiences a kind of hip-hop they weren’t used to.

“Every time I perform, no matter how anxious I’ve been, I go home happy, sometimes so happy I can’t sleep,” Hausawa said. “The love I’ve gotten here, I wish I had that back home.”

Hausawa is just as happy for his return to Nigeria. Since he left, DJs from around the world have vastly expanded his audience, and the radio and TV stations in Kano State have developed an increased appreciation for what he has to say.

He plans to record a new album before he goes back. He wants to make it sound even more innovative, yet still rooted in the music of his heritage.

“I’ve been talking with some very talented engineers,” Hausawa said. “We’re going to sample the local instruments to make a hip-hop beat out of that.”

Hausawa also plans to continue promoting his message of free expression and exposing the downfalls of the Kano government despite the threat of opposition from the higher-ups in Nigeria. He sees no other way of doing things, and he knows that what he is doing is right.

“I face a lot of judgement,” Hausawa said. “People wonder if I am a Hausa, if I am a Muslim, if I am a good person. I get that a lot, but I don’t care. I am who I am.”

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